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Natalia Berenkova

Ph.D., Institute of International Relations and World History, N. I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod

One of the conflicts in the Middle East that remains unresolved is the standoff between Lebanon and Israel. The active involvement of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement in the hostilities in Syria has not only led to the party transforming its domestic and foreign policies, but it has also caused Israel to modify its strategy with regard to threats from the north. The conflict is characterized by hostile rhetoric, as well as by the individual operations that the two sides carry out, including those in Syria. Russia’s active policy in Syria, and the fact that the country maintains contacts with both Israel and Hezbollah, means that it has become involved in the conflict between the two actors, underscoring the need to carve out a flexible policy that serves its own interests.

One of the conflicts in the Middle East that remains unresolved is the standoff between Lebanon and Israel. The active involvement of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement in the hostilities in Syria has not only led to the party transforming its domestic and foreign policies, but it has also caused Israel to modify its strategy with regard to threats from the north. The conflict is characterized by hostile rhetoric, as well as by the individual operations that the two sides carry out, including those in Syria. Russia’s active policy in Syria, and the fact that the country maintains contacts with both Israel and Hezbollah, means that it has become involved in the conflict between the two actors, underscoring the need to carve out a flexible policy that serves its own interests.

The Syrian crisis is a nexus of numerous regional conflicts. A number of parties – both governments and non-state actors – have a vested interest in the hostilities. The conflict has dragged on because the warring sides have proved too strong to lose, yet too weak to win. One of the key players in Syria is the Hezbollah movement, which has great ideological influence in the region, not to mention military might. However, the party’s interests are not limited to Syria.

Mutual Deterrence

On the very next day after Nasrallah’s speech it was learned that Israel had once again struck military targets in Syria, this time near Damascus. However, the Israeli army did not make any comment about this information, and it was refuted both within Syria and by Hezbollah. Israel is not part of any of the current coalitions operating in Syria, but the country’s leadership permits the use of weapons on Syrian territory in order to prevent the transfer of arms (which could alter the rules of the game) and attacks on Israeli soil. At the same time, Israel has not rejected the so-called Dahiya doctrine – the idea of an asymmetric response to attacks from Lebanon. This would involve the complete destruction of regions where Hezbollah is active, which is exactly what happened in the Dahiya quarter in Beirut during the war in 2006.

On February 17, the Lebanese TV channel Al-Manar published an article on its website entitled “Sayyed Nasrallah: Lebanon Possesses a Nuclear Bomb.” Lebanon, and indeed the entire Middle East, had tuned in to watch the speech given by the Secretary General of Hezbollah the previous evening, which he dedicated to the memory of the “martyr leaders of the resistance”, and to the victims of Israel’s operations in Syria in particular. Hezbollah is an extremely secretive organization, and the only way to track any changes in its policies is to follow the discourse of its official representatives. On this occasion, Sayyed Nasrallah paid a great deal of attention to the issue that is at the very core of the party’s activities – namely, its opposition to the politics of Israel. Pointing out Israel’s weaknesses (for example, the ammonia storage tanks in Haifa), he stated that any missile that reaches its goal is capable of producing a nuclear explosion-like effect.

AFP

Such rhetoric might sound overly bellicose if it were not for the overall tone of the signals that Israel and Hezbollah send each other. Despite all the threats being thrown around by both sides, things have been relatively quiet on the Lebanon–Israel front over the last decade, primarily because, unlike the media, the military is able to make proper sense of these signals. With the start of the Syrian conflict and the prospect of a second front opening up, another round of “feeling out” the enemy began in this game of mutual deterrence. Hezbollah has gone to great lengths to try and prove that its participation in the Syrian conflict has not weakened the organization in terms of its military capabilities on the main front – the fight against Israel and the occupation of Lebanese territory [1]. Israel in turn has utilized what it considers to be the necessary means to prevent the transfer of Hezbollah weapons from Syria, liquidating the organization’s leaders wherever possible.

This kind of system of mutual deterrence has a long history. Back in the 1990s, Israel and Hezbollah acted according to certain rules: Hezbollah would refrain from carrying out attacks on Israeli soil, while Israel would not open fire upon civilians outside the “security zone” [2]. After the tragic events that took place in Qana in 1996, the sides reached yet another ceasefire agreement, under which the Lebanese side agreed to curtail its Katyusha rocket attacks on Northern Israel in return for Israel stopping its military operations against civilian assets in Lebanon. The ceasefire lasted until the war in 2006. Syria, led by Hafez al-Assad, played a major role in developing the terms of the agreement. Assad used his influence over Hezbollah as a factor in the negotiations with Israel. The positions of Syria and Hezbollah began to converge following the breakdown of the negotiations, the appointment of Bashar al-Assad as President of Syria and the deterioration of United States–Syria relations – to such an extent that Hezbollah supported the Syrian government during the Cedar Revolution in 2004 and the organization’s current interference in the civil war.

Russia’s Place in the Conflict

Russia’s presence in Syria, as well as its active policy in the country, means that it has become involved in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Both sides are, in one way or another, partners of Russia in individual areas of the country’s politics in the Middle East. Israel and Russia have close bilateral relations and a history of cooperation, while Hezbollah has become an important player in Syria with its support for the Bashar al-Assad government. Developments in Southern Syria, the Golan Heights and on the Lebanon–Israel border are all part of a complex web of issues caused by the protracted war in Syria. And in order for Russia to continue to have an influence in this area, Moscow needs to follow an extremely flexible policy. The problem has two main aspects – ideological and practical.

The start of the Russian operation in Syria is often interpreted as the country choosing sides in the widely discussed “Sunni–Shia confrontation”: in Saudi discourse, Russia is seen as supporting the “Shia Crescent”, which helps Iran and its allies carry out expansion in the region; in Iranian discourse, however, Russia is seen as joining the Axis of Resistance – an informal bloc of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah (as well as Hamaz) whose primary goal is to oppose Israeli policies and the dominance of the United States and its allies in the region. However, neither the first nor the second goal is the determining factor of Russia’s position in the conflict. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation diligently avoids rhetoric about the inevitable inter-faith conflict and emphasizes the political motives of the warring sides. There is an acute awareness of the fact that becoming involved in an inter-faith conflict will only do harm to Russia’s interests in the region, which are multi-vectored in nature. Russia is open to cooperation with all the actors in the Middle East. This makes sense in terms of its long-term interests and genuine opportunities to influence the course of events in the region, as there is virtually no other way to achieve its goals without having to interact with all the players individually. However, for Russia, the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel on Syrian territory is a result of its diversified policy in the region.

It is becoming vital for all those involved in the affairs of the Middle Eastern countries to pay careful attention to non-state transnational movements and consolidated religious and ethnic groups that are active around the world, and in the Middle East in particular. Russia maintained contact with Hezbollah, because the movement started to exercise significant influence over domestic politics in Lebanon, and in the region as a whole. It should be noted here that in such instances Moscow tends to establish relations with all the actors that are capable of influencing the manner in which a given situation may develop, with the exception of those that Russian law has deemed to be terrorist organizations. With respect to Hezbollah, Russia proceeds from the fact that it is not an “imported product”, but rather the “result of the development of political life in Lebanon.” Hezbollah leaders have confirmed that relations with Russia have stepped up, with their positions drawing closer together. The Party’s Deputy Secretary-General, and one of its main thinkers, Naim Qassem, noted that the positions of Russia and Hezbollah have converged over the past ten years and that the two sides now interact in a number of different areas (link in Russian).

In terms of practical actions in Syria, Hezbollah has launched offensive ground operations for the first time in its history. Russia’s air operation in Syria and its close cooperation with the Syrian army have in turn led to interaction “on the ground” with the Party’s units that are actively involved in the hostilities. At the same time, working with the Russian Armed Forces helps Hezbollah’s troops build experience – it is no coincidence that Hezbollah squadrons are already being described as “highly effective”. While it is unlikely that offensive operations will be carried out by Hezbollah in the conflict with Israel, the fact that its troops are building this experience is worrying to Israeli analysts. What is more, alarmist sentiments have spread throughout Israel that Hezbollah may receive access to the latest lethal arms as a result of its work in Syria – arms that could be used in the future. Israel considers Hezbollah a greater threat than both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, as Hezbollah is based on the Israeli border and is allied with Iran.

Clashes on Syrian Territory

In the early years of the war in Syria, many experts in the West and Israel were convinced that the Bashar al-Assad administration’s days were numbered and that is was necessary to avoid the negative consequences that the war could have on the security of their own countries. In Israel, there were two points of view about the conflict in Syria: a) actively participate in overthrowing the Assad regime, thus breaking the link between Iran and Hezbollah; and b) intervene only if and when the security of Israel is threatened directly. But over time, the situation became far more complicated, with an infinite number of possible scenarios.

Israel carried out its first strikes against Syria in 2013, at a time when Hezbollah’s presence in the country had not yet been officially confirmed. The strikes targeted individual detachments that the Israeli leadership insisted could be dangerous. The purpose of the strikes was to demonstrate that under no circumstances can the Golan Heights be used as a base from which to launch operations against Israel. The prevailing view in Israel is that the only way to deter the enemy is to instil in them an awareness of the inevitability of a military response to an attack, and one that is disproportionate in nature.

At the same time, Hezbollah responded to claims to Shebaa Farms, which it considers to be Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory. It thus underscored the need to for the organization to maintain combat readiness in Lebanon and demonstrate a commitment to patriotic policies. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict means that it is diverting manpower and resources from the frontlines in the fight against Israel: it is losing fighters and coming under criticism at home. However, by demonstrating that it is capable of attacking targets on Israeli soil while not crossing certain borders, the organization seeks to prevent possible escalation.

EPA/WAEL HAMZEH/Vostock Photo
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There are two operations in particular where Israel did more than simply mark out red lines and pursued additional goals that it considered central to the country’s security: the operation near the city of Quneitra in January 2015, which resulted in the death of Jihad Mughniyah [3], a number of the Party’s members and a general from the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution; and the December 2015 operation near Damascus that killed the legendary Samir Kuntar. Kuntar was a Lebanese Druze who at the age of 16 took part in the Palestine Liberation Front’s Nasser Operation to capture hostages in the Israeli town of Nahariya in 1979. He was then sentenced to multiple life sentences, but was released in 2008 as part of the Israel–Hezbollah prisoner exchange involving prisoners and deceased soldiers. Upon his release, Kuntar went back to working with Hezbollah. The Israeli operation in Syria was not received well within the organization: Kuntur is now part of the pantheon of Hezbollah martyrs who lost their lives in the war against the takfiris and with Zionism.

It has become increasingly common in Hezbollah rhetoric to draw parallels between takfiris and Zionists. In his speeches, Sayyed Nasrallah emphasizes the negative role that Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies play in inciting inter-faith conflicts and anti-Shia sentiments. In his most recent speech, Nasrallah talked about the notorious handshake between Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and former Director of the General Intelligence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Munich Security Conference. He also accused the monarchies of contributing to the image of Israel as the defender of Sunnis in the Middle East while continuing to occupy Palestinian lands. The fight against Israel is thus linked, once again, to the actions of Saudi Arabia in the region. And this becomes even more relevant in light of the pressure that Saudi Arabia is putting on Lebanon, and on Hezbollah in particular. For example, in early March 2016, Saudi Arabia suspended its long-awaited aid package to the Lebanese Armed Forces for the purchase of weapons, which it desperately needs to combat the radical groups that are threatening to enter the country from Syria. At the same time, Hezbollah was declared a terrorist organization by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and the Arab League.

The operation that resulted in the death of Samir Kuntar not only caused indignation at the actions of Israel, but also raised questions about Russia’s position among media outlets that have connections to Hezbollah. It is known that after Russia commenced its operation in Syria, Moscow and Tel Aviv agreed to coordinate their actions in order to avoid possible clashes. The question is whether Russia knew about the Israeli operation beforehand and, if it did, then why did it do nothing to prevent it? Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation condemned the escalation on the border and called for the sides to show restraint. So, Russia and Hezbollah (or, in a wider context, the Axis of Resistance) are allies on the ground in Syria. It has become clear, however, that Russian side will not approve of any actions directed against Israel.

The Possible Consequences of Escalation

EPA / NABIL MOUNZER
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Israel will feel under great threat should Hezbollah and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution strengthen their positions in Southern Syria. The possibility of Israel stepping up its operation with the aim of destroying the enemy once and for all remains, given that this has been the focus of the Israeli military for years. The fact that Lebanon could elect a president who is closely linked to the resistance bloc should also be taken into account. A trend has appeared in recent years for the Christian parties to put their differences aside in the face of the threat of radicalism emanating from Syria. Not only this, the Christian parties have also started to cooperate with the Shiite Party. On the other hand, Israel would prefer to fight a war with Hezbollah only, rather than getting involved in the wider Lebanon–Syria conflict. As we have already mentioned, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will launch an offensive against Israel – the organization’s leaders have repeatedly stated that they have no interest in such a conflict. However, it is still possible that a small operation could lead to mutual escalation.

The convergence of interests among the many non-state players that have a vested interest in the Golan Heights is explosive. However, Russia’s presence in the region may have a deterrent effect on the various sides, particularly on the conflicting interests of Iran and Israel. A new Lebanon–Israel conflict would not benefit anyone, especially while the Syrian crisis remains unresolved. And it is in Moscow’s interests to somehow put an end to the war in Syria without going any further into the animosities that exist among the individual players. Apparently, this is one of the reasons behind the decision to phase out the Russian Aerospace Forces operation in Syria, which was announced on March 14, 2016 (link in Russian).

Just as the Russian operation was intended to break the deadlock in the political process in Syria and get the opposition to the negotiating table, the announcement that the operation was winding down at the time when meetings were being held in Geneva was intended to soften the Syrian government’s position at these negotiations. The reports that numerous Hezbollah detachments were busy leaving Syria after the Russian President’s announcement are particularly interesting (link in Arabic). Meanwhile, Russia will maintain a presence, as well as military bases, in the country as part of military cooperation. This will necessarily involve a lot of manoeuvring on the part of Russia in its contacts with Israel and Hezbollah.

1. Shebaa Farms is a disputed territory located between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The reason for the dispute is the fact that the border between Lebanon and Syria has never been demarcated. The United Nations and Israel consider Shebaa Farms a part of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while Lebanon claims that it is part of Lebanese territory and demands the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the region.

2. The “security zone” is an area in Southern Lebanon that was first occupied by Israel following the 1982 Lebanon War and then controlled jointly with the South Lebanon Army, a paramilitary group formed during the Lebanese Civil War, until 2000.

3. Jihad Mughniyah was the son of one of the founders of Hezbollah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyah, who died in 2008. According to some reports, he was killed as part of an operation carried out by the Israeli secret service.

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